5 Things Business School Rankings Don't Tell You

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Wednesday, June 8, 2022
By AACSB Staff
Photo by istock/master1305
Many factors go into choosing the right business school. While rankings appear to be a great framework for selection, there's a lot they don't cover.
  • Business school rankings are not completely objective and reduce the complexities of each school’s individual qualities.
  • Each business school ranking uses a different methodology, which hinders meaningful comparison between rankings.
  • Choosing a school that is AACSB accredited is one sure way of knowing if the program you’ll be attending is of the highest quality.
  • Earning an MBA or a specialized business master’s degree enables students to learn critical management skills, build professional networks, and further their business careers. Prospective students face important decisions about which graduate business program to apply to and attend. Because many students consult graduate business school rankings when researching schools, let’s take a closer look at their shortcomings.

    If you’re a prospective MBA or business master’s student, you should be cautious about using the popular b-school rankings when deciding which schools to consider. Here are five things business school rankings won’t tell you:

    1. They’re Not as Objective as They Appear

      Business school rankings may be well-intended, but they distill seemingly important information into ultimately meaningless numbers. The various rankings typically collate data submitted by business schools and gathered from surveys of graduates, business leaders, and other sources. The data covers admission rates, job placement, earnings, and many other categories.

      Some rankings consider hard data only, and others rely more on opinions. Whether a ranking focuses on a very narrow set of factors or has a broader scope, it yields a list of schools ranked according to their overall numbers. But if you follow individual schools across the rankings or across years, you’ll see that school rankings lack consistency. A school may be in the top five in one ranking or in one year but in the 20s in another ranking or another year.

      Because they’re based in part on statistics, the rankings appear to be objective, but they reduce the complexity of each school’s many qualities into a simple single number—its ranking relative to other schools. Each school's ranking is easy to digest but hard to trust.

    2. They Suffer From Data Integrity Issues

      Because business school rankings are based mostly on data submitted by schools and graduates, data integrity issues plague the process. The surveys sent to schools and graduates may ask imprecise questions and completed surveys may have inconsistent data or generate a low response level. For example, a school’s average graduate salary figure may be based on a small number of returned surveys, which may not accurately represent the average income of all graduates. Furthermore, not all schools voluntarily contribute to rankings or want to be involved in rankings.

      Because rankings have become important to their marketing efforts, business schools take active steps to improve their numbers and rankings. Rumors and accusations of schools manipulating or misrepresenting data have arisen over the years.

    3. They’re Tilted Toward the Best-Known Schools

      If you’ve only glanced at the ratings, you’ll notice that many of the same schools tend to fill the top spots each year. That’s due in part to these schools having greater resources and longer traditions. The ways in which rankings are devised—focusing on student selectivity factors, graduate salaries, and reputational factors—tend to reward the best-known programs. These schools are also able to spend more time and resources that will keep their rankings high, such as expanding job placement services and funding new institutes. Many smaller-resourced schools with more limited resources find it difficult to rise in the rankings.

    4. They Follow Very Different Methodologies

      Here’s a brief overview of how ranking organizations build their lists of best business schools:

      • Bloomberg  ranks schools based on the four categories it believes best capture key elements of the value of an MBA: compensation, learning, networking, and entrepreneurship.
      • The Economist  bases its global business school rankings on surveys sent to schools and students.
      • Financial Times  publishes eight different rankings annually, and each has its own methodology. The Global Business School ranking, for example, uses 20 different criteria, based mostly on surveys completed by participating schools and their recent graduates.
      • Forbes  bases its annual business school rankings solely on salary differential—the five-year median returns on investment that graduates achieve. They compare total post-graduating compensation with the opportunity costs (two years of forgone compensation and tuition) to arrive at the average amount graduates earned by getting their MBA versus staying in their pre-MBA careers.
      • Fortune  uses questionnaires returned by business schools and data collected from companies and executives, as well as surveys of business professionals and hiring managers, to tabulate its rankings.  
      • Positive Impact Rating  debuts its rankings in 2022. The organization uses an alternative ranking methodology that reflects how the interests of business students have changed.
      • U.S. News and World Report’s ranking prioritizes student excellence (mean GMAT, GRE, and GPA), qualitative assessments, and career placement.

      As you can see, the methodologies of MBA program rankings vary too greatly from one to the other to be meaningfully compared.

    5. They Don’t Effectively Measure Crucial Factors

      Not all of the factors that go into business school rankings are relevant to a specific student, and not all of the highly ranked schools provide a great fit for that student’s intended education, career, and life goals.

      For example, most of the rankings do not effectively measure areas of increasing importance to prospective students, such as societal change. A school’s salary differential may not be particularly relevant for a prospective student who plans to work for an environmental nonprofit or start a green business.

      Ultimately, rankings fail to reflect the rich complexity of each business school. The graduate business degree experience is different for every student, which means that rankings do a poor job of representing how good a school is for a specific student.

    Making the Right Choice

    When choosing the MBA or specialized master’s program that best fits your needs, make a list of your desires and requirements, cast a wide net when researching schools, and keep in mind that it’s your decision. Don’t let the business school rankings make the choice for you. Seek out specific programs that will fulfill your unique interests and enable you to develop your own skills and talents.

    Another important factor to consider is AACSB accreditation. Business schools accredited by AACSB have met rigorous standards for educational quality, yet they can pursue their own distinct, innovative missions. Although less than 6 percent* of the world's schools offering business degree programs hold AACSB business accreditation, more than 90 percent of ranked schools have received accreditation.

    When you choose an AACSB-accredited school, you know that you’ll receive the highest-quality business education while having the freedom to choose the right school to fit your specific needs and goals.

    *As of July 2022.
    AACSB Staff
    The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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